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Activist in extreme-right group probed over sexual harassment complaint

Victim was reportedly 17 when she was harassed by the prominent Lehava member, who calls the incident ‘an innocent mistake’ and ‘misreading of the situation’

Police stand in front of demonstrators from the Lehava Jewish extremist group at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, on April 22, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Illustrative: Police stand in front of demonstrators from the Lehava Jewish extremist group at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on April 22, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A prominent member of the extreme-right Lehava organization is under investigation over suspicions he sexually harassed a teenage activist in the group, Israeli television reported Wednesday.

The suspect, who was not named, was questioned by police on Tuesday, the television reports said. The girl was 17 years old at the time of the incident, according to the Kan public broadcaster. Channel 12 news said the alleged harassment occurred 10 months ago.

Both networks reported on alleged efforts within Lehava to cover up the claim, with Kan saying the female activist’s employment was terminated after she complained.

Lehava also told the television stations that it fired the suspect after the incident, but both reports cited sources saying he continued to maintain ties with the far-right group.

“This was an innocent mistake made because of a misreading of the situation. I apologized immediately and also later. My activity in the organization was immediately halted and I apologize for the entire situation,” the suspect told Channel 12.

The teenager worked in a call center operated by Lehava which the suspect ran, according to Channel 12. The suspect previously served time in prison for nationalist crimes.

Illustrative: Activists from the extremist Jewish group Lehava protest against Jerusalem’s pride parade, August 3, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The network also quoted the girl’s recounting the incident to her friends. She was reported to say that she was groped by the suspect after he called her into his office several times for help with supposed computer problems.

“When I told him, ‘stop, enough,’ he answered, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you. The urge overtook me,'” she reportedly told her friends.

After the incident, Channel 12 said the girl informed the wife of Lehava leader Bentzi Gopstein and the wife of far-right Otzma Yehudit party leader Itamar Ben Gvir, who is now a Knesset member with the Religious Zionism faction.

The two women reportedly told the girl they would help her if she contacted police, but the network also quoted sources saying they told her: “There is no point in complaining and the police in any case won’t do anything.”

The report also quoted activists who said they wanted to publicize the incident in the anti-miscegenation group’s internal WhatsApp channels, but there was an effort to silence them.

“Ayala Ben Gvir was opposed. She said it would harm [the girl’s] marriage prospects,” the activists were quoted as saying.

Ben Gvir said she recommended the girl go to the police and that “I offered to join her.” She also told the TV station that she suggested the girl seek psychological treatment and that she “warned others of him,” but said she received an “explicit request” from the girl not to publicize the incident.

“We need to respect her and her wish not to publish. The well-being of the girl comes before publishing,” Ben Gvir said.

Lehava chairman Benzi Gopstein, right, and his attorney Itamar Ben Gvir, left, arrive at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, June 8, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A rabbi affiliated with the group was also informed of the incident, but authorities were not informed until the teenager filed a complaint last week, the report said.

Lehava also said it told the girl to file a police complaint and to tell her parents, “but she firmly refused and asked we not report to the police.”

The group also denounced what it called “elements who are trying to harm the Lehava organization with manipulations and lies for personal interests.”

Gopstein’s Lehava group opposes intermarriage and assimilation of Jews, as well as LGBT rights, and tries to stifle any public activity by non-Jews in Israel, including coexistence events. Lawmakers across the political spectrum have tried to designate it as a terrorist group.

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